Art and the Herbarium: Metaphor

4 Freud

Cover of Lucian Freud Herbarium by Giovanni Aloi, courtesy of Prestel Publishing

In the last post, I discussed Anselm Kiefer and his use of dried plants, essentially herbarium material, in his multimedia paintings.  Here I want to begin with another artist whose name is linked to herbaria, at least metaphorically.  In Lucian Freud Herbarium Giovanni Aloi (2019) deals with paintings of plants that Freud created throughout his career, though Freud is much better known for his portraits, sometimes of nudes with less than perfect bodies.  I am always surprised and delighted when I discover artists known for other subjects who also painted plants:  the pop artist Jim Dine (Dine & Livingstone, 1994), the minimalist Ellsworth Kelly (Axsom, 2005), and two painters in the precisionist style:  Charles Sheeler (Troyen, 1987) and Charles Demuth (Peitcheva, 2016).  But here what I want to focus on is Aloi’s inclusion of the word “herbarium” in the book’s title.

The term “herbarium” was in use long before there were collections of preserved plants.  It is a Latin noun and was employed to refer to a book on plants, often illustrated.  For example, Otto Brunfels’s 1534 Herbarum Vivae Eicones was an early herbal, a volume on medicinal plants that had realistic illustrations.  This was about the same time that herbaria began to be created, but the term used for such a collection was usually the Latin hortus siccus, dry garden, or hortus hyemalis, winter garden.  Agnes Arber (1938) writes:  “The word “Herbarium,” in the modern sense, makes its first appearance in print—so far as the present writer is aware—in Pitton de Tournefort’s Elemens of 1694” (p. 142).  She is so often quoted on this that 1694 has become the birthday of the term, over 150 years after the first of its kind was created.

Those working in herbaria are often called on to describe their place of employment to family and friends.  Say the word, and people automatically think of growing and selling herbs, or being into health food or herbal medicine.  Their faces usually fall when it’s explained that herbaria house dead plants, all labeled with scientific names.  But the fact remains that the base of this term, herb, is the Latin word for herb or grass.  It has been tied to plant material for millennia, and “herbarium” continues to be used in a variety of ways, usually to describe some plant-related collection, as in the case of the Freud book.  I’d like to dig a little deeper into this metaphorical usage because it both causes some confusion—I have never heard that Lucian Freud, for all his interest in plants and his attention to rendering them realistically, ever had a herbarium.

The definition of a metaphor I like to use is that of the philosopher Max Black (1954).  He argues that a metaphor is different from a direct comparison:  saying metaphorically “man is a wolf” is different from saying “man is like a wolf.”  The metaphor is more powerful.  Though the two subjects have both similarities and differences, it is the similarities that are heightened in the metaphor.  So in the case of herbarium, using the term “Lucian Freud herbarium” highlights the fact that Freud painted a collection of plants as a way to preserve something of them visually even though he didn’t press the plants or dry them or paste them on to sheets of paper.  There have been several collections of art referred to as herbaria including an exhibit of plant-related pieces at Lytes Cary Manor House in Britain called simply Herbarium, as well as a book on art that links technology with plants, The Technological Herbarium (Gatti, 2010).

Right now it seems to be fashionable to use the word herbarium metaphorically in a variety of ways, usually relating to plants and collections and often with the idea of preservation, of memory.  This is especially true for writers interested in plants as sentient beings or at least worthy of more attention for having sophisticated interactions with the environment including with other living things.  It is not a coincidence that Giovanni Aloi, the author of the Lucian Freud book, is also the editor of a volume of essays, Botanical Speculations (2018), on plants in contemporary art with a focus on their “agency.”  There is also Botanical Drift: Protagonists of the Invasive Herbarium (Carroll, 2017), a collection of art pieces presented at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew that encouraged visitors to appreciate plants in new ways.

Michael Marder, a philosopher and leading figure in the “critical plant studies” movement to link the humanities to botany, has used the herbarium metaphor in two different ways in his books.  In The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, Marder (2014) applies the term to emphasize his interest in collecting stories about how philosophers have incorporated their observations on plants into building their philosophical systems.  Marder’s The Chernobyl Herbarium (2016) is more personal.  It is a collection of writings about his memories of living downwind from Chernobyl at the time of the reactor accident and includes photographs of plants taken by Anaïs Tondeur by pressing plants from the area near the reactor onto photographic plates, which were thus developed by the radiation emitted by the plants.  The resulting images are ghostly but powerful.  Other meanings of herbaria also arise here including deterioration, death, and fragility.  Such metaphorical uses of the word may be one way we can give it more currency.  Max Black argues that metaphors can be used so much that they lose their force, but I don’t think we are there yet.


Aloi, G. (Ed.). (2018). Botanical Speculations. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars.

Aloi, G. (2019). Lucian Freud Herbarium. Munich, Germany: Prestel.

Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Axsom, R. (2005). Drawn from Nature: The Plant Lithographs of Ellsworth Kelly. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Black, M. (1954). Metaphor. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 55, 273–294.

Carroll, K. von Z. (Ed.). (2017). Botanical Drift: Protagonists of the Invasive Herbarium. Berlin, Germany: Sternberg.

Gatti, G. M. (2010). The Technological Herbarium (A. N. Shapiro, Trans.). Berlin, Germany: Avinus.

Livingstone, M. (1994). Jim Dine: Flowers and Plants. New York, NY: Abrams.

Marder, M. (2014). The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Marder, M. (2016). The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness. London, UK: Open Humanities Press.

Peitcheva, M. (2016). Charles Demuth: Drawings. Scott’s Valley, CA: CreateSpace.

Troyen, C. (1987). Charles Sheeler, Paintings and Drawings. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

One thought on “Art and the Herbarium: Metaphor

  1. Pingback: Critical Plant Studies | Herbarium World

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